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Warning from the EU: Don't Pay NGOs to Rig Policy Debates
Bad things happen when governments finance fringe environmental groups
If NGOs are non-governmental, why do more and more governments provide funding or incentives to these organizations? This is not just about offering tax deductions for donations to non-profits or creating tax incentives for trusts and foundations to redirect capital. In many situations, organizations like Friends of the Earth or WWF directly receive public taxpayer money to fund their operations. How did this happen?
The European Union, for example, has given hundreds of millions of euros over the last decade directly to often-hostile NGOs (or umbrella groups of non-profits) so they can attack innovative technologies and government industry strategies. How did this happen? … and why?
Dialogue = Legitimacy
Governments need legitimacy to survive. After a series of mishandled risk crises in Europe, from BSE (mad cow), the GMO moratorium, MMR and tainted blood; after the dismissal of the entire Santer Commission; and facing the coming expansion of EU membership to include 12 new Member States, the European Union was facing a serious legitimacy crisis. At a European Summit in Nice, European leaders called for a reassessment of Brussels’ governance practices. In 2001, the European Commission published the White Paper on Governance, a document that still, to a certain extent, guides EU policy today.
In order to restore credibility, the White Paper on Governance aimed to have the Commission engage with the public, involve stakeholders in the decision-making process and remove the image that Brussels was ruled by smoky backroom deals and non-represented men in white coats. A more participatory approach started to be trialed with citizen panels, support for non-scientific expertise and a more open, public dialogue process.
In the mid-2000s, policy tools like the European Technology Platforms (ETPs) were created to offer all stakeholders a voice in the research and innovation process. With dialogue as the key legitimacy tool in the governance process, ETPs brought together academics, NGOs, industry and government to try to work together on emerging technologies. Other tools like Green Papers or public consultations turned the streets around Place Schuman in Brussels into talking shops.
Refusal to be a Rubber Stamp
Soon though NGOs grew tired of the process, citing the high cost of participating and the inability to directly influence decisions as their reasons for leaving the ETPs. These groups also felt they were only there to legitimize the process and were not being listened to. The European Commission provided different funding mechanisms to try to keep these NGOs at the table. Instead, the activists took the money but never showed up at the meetings (or spent it having their own meetings limited to people who agreed with them).
By 2006, when things were not evidently working, I came out of retirement to rapporteur a paper for the then European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) on improving the poor relationship between scientific institutions and civil society organizations. For two years, we tried to bring NGOs into the dialogue and find tools to salvage the stakeholder consultation process. In order to get activists to engage at Commission events, we even considered giving the consultation budgets to the NGOs and letting them organize the events.
The paper inspired the Mobilization and Mutual Learning sections of the European Commission’s Seventh Funding Framework Programme aiming to help NGOs engage with scientific organizations and develop better science and technology skills. Instead, the activists took the money and shared it among their own networks with no cross-fertilization with other stakeholder groups.
By the time the EURAB report was published, it was evident the stakeholder dialogue process was dead. While I found this report to be valuable and a useful snapshot of the aspirations of a past era, the entire two-year rapporteuring process marked another episode of my long history of failed attempts at trying to engage with these bands of closed-minded zealots.
Justifying your Expenses
What happens when governments or their agencies give activists money? No civil servant would want to admit that they wasted public money funding a band of activists bent on disrupting access to societal goods.
So the European Union institutions and agencies are giving more access and a louder voice to these non-governmental, government-funded organizations, giving them key speaking roles at public consultations, organizing events in the European Parliament and having their scientists occupy positions on scientific panels.
And the NGOs then use this influence to complain about how industry-funded lobbyists are distorting the European policy process. It is ironic given that during my time as an industry lobbyist, I never saw the type of funding that the NGOs were receiving directly from the public purse. Most of our budget was to fund research to respond to allegations NGOs were making against our substances.
How do we Stop / Prevent this Nonsense?
Clearly there needs to be more information made available to how much public money is wasted on governments funding or incentivizing non-governmental organizations.
We need better scrutiny on how they spend this money and if it is in the public’s interest. Some of the European Commission’s LIFE Programme funding tools simply renew annual funding commitments with no expected deliverables.
In North America, the myriad of foundations and trusts operating outside of the tax regimes needs to be tightened up. Non-profit does not mean non-accountability.
It is time to stop the gradual surrender of policy-making responsibility to public consultations, citizen assemblies and participatory governance tools. Many citizen climate panels came up with unworkable, activist-led recommendations.
Finally, industry needs to wake up and see how the system has turned against them. To this day, companies have continued to try to engage with these groups, giving them platforms far higher than their own. If industry actors don’t get the same volume or voice in the dialogue process as other stakeholders, then they should just abandon the policy debate. That would once again call into question the legitimacy of the process.
Portions of this article were based on a part of a larger work found at https://risk-monger.com/2018/06/11/how-to-kill-dialogue/.